The Austin Chronicle

Merchants Talk, City Listens

No Lamar Roadwork for Christmas

By Amy Smith, July 4, 2003, News

Last week, merchants on Lamar Boulevard thought they had met their maker at the Shoal Creek Saloon when officials from the city Public Works Dept. gave them a preview of what they'd be getting for Christmas: orange construction barrels, big, loud machines, portable johns, limited access to their shops, and one lane of traffic in each direction from Town Lake to 24th.

Clearly, the news warranted a mid-afternoon Shiner from the bar, and then -- what the hell -- make that two. Then came the cries of dire consequences: "We really, really, need this Christmas season" ... "You're starting about the worst possible time that you could" ... "We're probably going to lose a couple of thousand a day."

The Public Works guys, project manager Michael Curtis and traffic engineer Gary Silagi, furrowed their brows and swallowed hard. "We know it's not going to be pretty," Silagi told the business owners. "It's going to be rough on y'all."

In the end, the retailers' comments hit home: Tearing up the road in a key retail corridor during the holiday season is a bad idea. So Public Works backed off of that plan right quick. After a flurry of phone calls between city offices, word came from the city manager's office on Monday that the project would not start until January.

"We're going to delay the start of the project based on their concerns," Curtis said Monday morning. "The decision was made exclusively in response to meeting the needs of the merchants."

Not a bad decision, considering the fiasco of the long-running Barton Springs Road project -- a subject still fresh on the minds of retailers at last week's meeting. The concerns of the merchants also gave newbie Council Member Brewster McCracken the opportunity to tackle his first constituent-service task. He was the only council member to send an aide to the meeting and the only one to place a phone call to Public Works on the merchants' behalf.

"This is a strip of local small businesses," said Karen Gross, McCracken's policy director. "I think it's in the city's interest to work with them, and I'm delighted that things worked out this way."

Gross is likely not half as delighted as the Lamar Boulevard merchants, most of whom have already done all of their buying for the fall and Christmas season. It wasn't until May when they learned that the road project would likely silence their cash registers during the busiest time of year. Additionally, Paolo Missini had just opened a new business, Castle Hill Specialized Fitness, last October, and was counting on the high traffic volume near 12th and Lamar to draw new customers. "The high lease rates are compensated by high traffic," Missini said. "Now we're going to have to spend more money in marketing and make more of an effort to get people in here." Now he can count on at least a few more months of steady traffic flow.

The $8 million reconstruction project is part of the massive bond package approved by voters in November 1998; Public Works officials also want to take the opportunity to upgrade near-ancient water and wastewater lines and make storm water inlet improvements. Additionally, workers will install sidewalks and curbs and accessibility ramps on the east side of Lamar between MLK and West 24th -- across from the Shoal Creek Greenbelt -- and will make other improvements under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Initially, the city had planned to award the project to two contractors, with one handling the northern segment (north of MLK) and the other working the southern end (to Town Lake). Now, the work will go to a single contractor, who will be charged with speeding up the work schedule to complete the project by the original target date of November 2004.

A rumor circulating last week noted that the completion date coincided just a little too perfectly with the opening of the new Whole Foods complex at Sixth and Lamar. While Curtis allowed that Public Works has discussed the roadwork with the Whole Foods contractor, Hensel Phelps Construction Co. (also the contractor for the new City Hall), the Sixth + Lamar project was not receiving special treatment. "No truth whatsoever," Curtis said.

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